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Hallowed Ground : Arlington National Cemetery came from humble beginnings. But 130 years later, : it's America's most prestigious burial site.

August 05, 1994|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — On a sultry summer morning at Arlington National Cemetery, Erwin Henry Shupp was buried on a grassy knoll as a bugler played taps and soldiers fired a rifle volley at the sky.

At 9 a.m., just after the bell tolled in a faraway cemetery clock tower, seven white horses pulled a gun carriage carrying a flag-covered casket with Shupp's cremated remains along a cemetery road, under the oak and magnolia trees, to his waiting grave.

His friends had called him Ed, this Army lieutenant colonel who loved to ride horses and had served as a field artillery officer in World War II, later working as a Southern California aerospace engineer.

But after eight painful years fighting cancer, Shupp finally took his place alongside so many other soldiers and statesmen here at Arlington National--the most prestigious burial grounds in the United States.

On the same July day, 23 other funerals were held at Arlington. Some, like Shupp's, featured military honors--a somber black gun carriage, or caisson, and an honor guard. Others were simple affairs attended by a few family members.

Established during the Civil War as a burial ground for Union soldiers, the cemetery has taken in the remains of more than 232,000 Americans, including Presidents and judges, admirals, astronauts, war heroes and social pioneers.

Each year, 4.5 million tourists visit the graves of President John F. Kennedy; his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; his brother Sen. Robert Kennedy, and U.S. Supreme Court Justices Earl Warren, Oliver Wendell Holmes and William O. Douglas.

At Arlington, soldiers and generals are buried side by side, fighting men and women sharing a field of realized dreams, their marble markers stretching out in elegant symmetry to the horizon.

"It must make dying a little easier to know you'll be buried at Arlington," cemetery historian Kathy Shenkle said. "One thing is for sure, you'll be in good company for some time to come."

Indeed, the names of those buried in Arlington's 612 acres read like some comprehensive American history book: Arctic explorers Robert E. Peary and Richard Byrd. President William Howard Taft. Boxing great Joe Louis. Audie Murphy, the most decorated World War II veteran. Statesman John Foster Dulles. World War II Gens. Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall. Scopes "Monkey Trial" prosecutor William Jennings Bryan. And Civil War veteran Abner Doubleday, credited in myth with the invention of baseball.

With them are 21 Marines killed in a 1983 terrorist bombing in Lebanon, as well as the eight men who died in the failed 1980 attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran. And countless everyday soldiers who fought in World Wars I and II, in Korea and Vietnam.

To join Arlington's ranks is no easy task: Most of those buried here qualified because they died on the battlefield, or on active military duty, or served the country at least 20 years. Others held the nation's highest military decorations or the Purple Heart.

"It meant a lot to him to be buried here," said one mourner at a military service. "You just can't put a price on it."

A day at Arlington provides a peaceful break from the intensity of the nation's capital just across the Potomac River. Boisterous onlookers suddenly quiet as they come upon the eternal flame at the JFK grave site and approach the Tomb of the Unknowns, guarded around the clock by a solitary sentinel.

An average of 18 funerals take place daily at Arlington, the second-largest national cemetery after Long Island National Cemetery in New York. At the height of the Vietnam war, 35 burials were held daily.

At the present rate, the cemetery will be filled by the year 2025. "Nobody," one worker said, "wants to see that day come."

Every morning, one half-hour before the first funeral, the flag outside Arlington House, once the home of Robert E. Lee, is lowered to half staff, where it remains until half an hour after the day's last ceremony.

The cemetery's most elaborate ceremony, full honors, is reserved for the highest-ranking officers and includes a rifle salute, riderless horse with boots reversed in the stirrups, a military band and a casket carried on a horse-drawn caisson, flanked by members of the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Regiment, "the Old Guard."

Lt. Col. Albert Isler, a chaplain who presided over the Shupp ceremony, performed five other funerals that day.

"I've seen bagpipe and harp players, gospel-singing soloists, even a boombox playing rap music," he said. "People add their own touches as a way of saying farewell."

Worse than summer funerals in humid northern Virginia are the wintertime ceremonies where stern-faced military honor guardsmen shiver under thin coats and white gloves.

"The wind chill is 20-below, your hands are frozen, your nose is running, and you can't do anything about it," Isler said. "But you know the family is just as cold. They're suffering more than you."

*

Despite its present-day grandeur, Arlington National Cemetery started as a virtual potter's field.

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